There are a number of interesting things about 36-year-old Ang Jolie Mei, apart from her unique-sounding name.
She works in an interesting area occupied entirely by funeral parlours, side by side, some of which have racks and shelves spilling over their allocated space.
And her “office carpark”?
They are dominated by hearses, lorries and mini-buses, with only the occasional “uncle” car — a veritable “death row”, if we ever saw one, and if you pardon the rather morbid pun.
Yep, you guessed correctly —- she runs her funeral parlour business, named “The Life Celebrant”, which complements her late father Ang Yew Seng’s work, now owned and run by her mother.
Her “office cubicle” is an interesting one as well: a brightly-lit unit split into two parts — the office and coffin/casket display room as well as the “back-of-house” (where the body is prepared for a wake) and a parlour, with an air-conditioned, tastefully decorated space for wakes or memorial services.
Ang’s occupation is probably even more fascinating than where she works: she could very well be Singapore’s only certified funeral celebrant and director.
Despite her youth, Ang has been in this line for almost 14 years now, with a four-year break in the financial advisory sector.
This means she started on all this fresh out of university, and was among the youngest females to lead a funeral parlour at the time.
Here are the three key life lessons we learned, after an afternoon with the lady who wants Singaporeans to take their deaths more seriously:
1. Everyone should plan for his or her own funeral
When Ang dies, she would like to have her long curls down, her nails painted red, elegant heels on her feet and be dressed in her favourite lime green cheongsam.
She wants to be placed in a white casket with her trademark dancing boots, her Ray-Bans and some of her favourite fans and surrounded by arrangements of red roses and perhaps other colourful flowers, should anyone wish to send wreaths.
At her wake will be a karaoke machine, prominently positioned so people can dedicate and perform songs to her — also planned is a memorial service, to be held at a salsa club she frequents, with a live Latin band playing salsa, kizomba, bachata, cha-cha, merengue and tango (the types of dance she enjoys) songs, as well as a website celebrating her life and containing messages she wants to share with her loved ones.
But it’s not just the details of her funeral that she has planned — she has also worked out her will, and as a certified financial advisor, also has sufficient insurance protection to ensure her family will not have to deal with frightening hospital bills or other steep costs associated with her passing.
And she feels everyone should absolutely do the same.
Now, just before you dismiss Ang as some kind of morbid psychopath, her mentality toward this is shaped strongly by her own experience of her father’s death.
In late 2003, Ang Yew Seng was diagnosed with colon cancer, and passed away two and a half months later, within the first Lunar New Year month of 2004, to renal failure after complications arose from surgery.
Despite being in the funeral industry for the bulk of his life, the younger Ang was stunned to discover that her father had done absolutely zero preparation for his own passing.
“When we came back to make arrangements (after Ang’s father passed away), I think we were very lost. (Even) the embalmer who would usually take care of my father’s cases didn’t want to embalm my father, ’cause he couldn’t bear to do it… we didn’t even know which photo we should use for him.
A lot of times when we were doing all this, when we were making the arrangements, I think a lot of questions came to us. And what hit me was, as a funeral director, how come he was not prepared?? And how come we were not prepared?”
Ang, the second of three daughters, was thrust into an administrator position, alongside her mother and older sister — her younger sister and her brother, who was 9 at the time, were still minors — for her father’s estate.
And the family wasn’t left with much — there was no will: a Jaguar they couldn’t afford (monthly instalments were upward of $3,000), their home, $8,572 in cash (he had no bank accounts or credit cards), and his key entity that continues to serve as his legacy: Ang Yew Seng Funeral Parlour.
“To be honest, we were struggling… it was very tough. My mum, thank God, she has savings; otherwise imagine with four kids, and two of them still in school. So it was really a blessing that my mum is more of the thrifty type.”
With all the trouble Ang and her mother faced in dealing with her father’s funeral and all that followed, she spent four years learning about financial and estate planning, insurance and more. She prepared her will when she was 24, and also made sure her mother’s will was completed.
Armed with that knowledge, she returned to work with her mum, and founded The Life Celebrant, where she focuses immensely on all-in-one services for families.
“I went into financial advisory so that at least I am financially literate, like, what’s going on, what protection I need, that in the event this happens, you know, I’m covered; my mum doesn’t have to worry.
I’ve always had the calling to come back (to the funeral industry). I believe in providing from cradle to grave, from womb to tomb; I saw the link in selling whole life insurance for the time of inevitable loss — when a breadwinner passes away, the family is still at ease because they still have money to tide through — and I felt that I was able to provide a one-stop solution, even to the insurance aspect.”
So what should you think about, if you were to set out and plan your own funeral?
Three main things:
– your funeral,
– your insurance coverage, and
– your will.
Funeral: If you’re not religious, you can still decide on a particular type of religion to apply to your funeral — the common ones are either Buddhist or Taoist, for the Chinese, or Christian, if you so preferred.
You’ll want to think about who you’d like to inform, how you’d want your obituary to appear, any particular themes you’d like for your wake and funeral, or what to wear, what you’d like to go into your casket — thinking about these details and making decisions ahead of time while you’re still able will save your grieving family a lot of pain and stress. You can even pay in advance.
Insurance Coverage: Chances are you wouldn’t want your family to stress out over how to pay for your funeral or to get by without your financial contributions, or perhaps pay for any liabilities you might have. If you can get all your affairs settled, and triggered upon your passing, things will be way easier when you’re gone.
Your will: You should draft one with a lawyer, especially if you have assets. Appoint a reliable person to administer it, and decide who should receive which precious item of value to you, and who should receive how much money from your insurance payouts, so your family won’t end up arguing over who should get what — that’s never a nice thing to go through or experience.
2. Place equal importance on your death as you do on birth, and weddings
Here’s another radical idea none of us might have ever thought of before: thinking about death in the way we think about births and weddings.
Ang explains that death is as certain to happen as our birth did for all of us; our weddings aren’t guaranteed, but yet we put so much money and effort into them — when we pass on, there are many things to consider, and so why shouldn’t we view it with the same level of importance?
She shared that after muscling her way back into the industry — her mother was persistently unsupportive, worried she wouldn’t be able to get married in future — she ventured to other countries, both to study the trade and to understand how things are done elsewhere.
There is still no school, course or certification in the death industry here, so Ang spent two and a half years in distance learning with a Canadian programme, as well as a week in Australia to obtain her funeral celebrant certification.
“You have to study conflict management, you have to study grief management, and then how to do funeral directing — you need to learn about embalming, part of the process about embalming (so you can) explain to the family (how it’s done). So all this comes under funeral directing school, but we don’t have it here in Singapore.”
During this time, she continued working, and visited funeral homes in the U.S., the Philippines and even in our neighbouring Malaysia, discovering that in this field, Singapore remains extremely backward.
“Our neighbouring countries are so much more advanced than us in our services. I was really taken aback when I first went to the Philippines… and even in Malaysia, they have a building and it looks like a hotel, and when you go into the embalming room, it’s very nicely done; when you go into the parlour, it’s almost like a ballroom. You won’t even think it was a funeral home.
So I guess that’s where (I asked myself) eh, why is it that we are not moving forward?”
She used the example of burials, and how in the States, for instance, there are machines that prepare the grave, and systems that lower the casket or coffin into it, whereas in Singapore, we still do it manually.
“That was when I realised, wow, there’s so many things to learn about the funeral industry, just that in Singapore we are still at the infancy stage. So it actually broadened out my perspective about funeral homes, a funeral business, a funeral operation,” she added.
She strongly believes, though, that we need to start thinking about death with as great gravity as we view life, and with the same meticulousness with which we plan our weddings.
“There’s no certification, no strict regulations in our industry… the perception of our funeral industry is still (that) they belong to the ‘old school’. Nobody wants this job, because that’s how the industry was when my dad started… people who can’t find other jobs end up with this job.
If you look at the lifestyles of Singaporeans, I think ours is superior (to other countries). But when you look at the death care, we are still inferior; we have a lot of room to grow. In fact, I hope one day we can be regarded on the same level (in terms of profession) as a doctor or gynaecologist — because gynaecologists are the ones who bring you into the world, right, but who is going to bring you back to the earth? Someone has to do the job. So why do they not take us seriously like them?”
Ang goes on, pointing out that in the U.S., a person needs three years’ education in mortuary science school, followed by a year’s internship, after which he or she sits for a state exam before he or she can become a licensed embalmer or funeral director.
“But here in Singapore, there are a lot of people who don’t pay attention to this industry, because nobody wants to talk about it. But yet we should talk about it, you know, how we can improve the crematorium, for instance.
Once we have more awareness about our industry, and once it is seen as a legitimate professional career, people will start to open their eyes and say yes, maybe the younger generation can come in. Maybe one day a school can start this curriculum and have this awareness.”
The future of the industry — young people?
We were surprised to discover that Ang had three interns with us that day at her parlour — interns from Hwa Chong Institution, no less — who were interested to experience and understand how things worked in the industry.
Each batch of interns spends a week with her company, rotating different departments depending on their own and their parents’ comfort level. When asked why they chose to intern at Ang’s company, they said it was very interesting and different from everything else.
The key to bringing more young people into the industry, in her view, is to keep evolving your offerings, just like with any other service or trade.
“People’s needs are growing, and their preferences are changing, so we should also change and not just stay doing what my dad started 30 years ago. So I think innovation is important.
I guess it’s when there is effort to bring out the awareness of this industry, then more young people will come in. If we don’t change, who’s going to start? We can’t just accept (the way things are), and if you think about it, if the day comes where I need to engage this kind of service, can I accept this kind of level? So that (made me) realise, eh, we have to change the way we are doing things.”
And that’s why Ang takes care of everything, even little details like installing charging stations at the wake reception table, setting up a kids’ play corner at request, ordering food, catering customised and personalised food, valet parking, night vigil teams and more.
3. Start talking about death as a life in a day, as opposed to a day in someone else’s life
One final big idea Ang shared is the concept of celebrating a person’s life at their funeral, instead of mourning a person’s passing and then moving on with our lives.
It’s the reason why Ang and her team of employees work extremely hard to capture well how a person has lived his/her life, and to share stories from the person’s life with all who attend their memorial service, wake or funeral.
“That’s why we are like a funeral concierge to the families — when the families are already distraught and they are grieving, they won’t have time to think of all these logistics. So we as funeral directors, and we as a funeral concierge, we should think about all this…. problems that they may face, parking issues, catering, you know, (we’ll ask them) do you want this to be taken care of?”
Ang says this outlook she has on commemorating a person’s life in a meaningful way for the families she works with comes from her experience in celebrating funerals overseas. She tells us about one instance in New Zealand, where she learned an old lady’s life story just by attending the funeral celebrant service, and listening to the anecdotes shared by the presiding celebrant.
“So it was this that kind of touched my heart, and I decided this is how I want funerals in Singapore to be done,” she said.
With this in mind, her company introduced memorial boards for families — panels that incorporate pictures, messages and other memories unique to a person’s life, passions and interests, so visitors to a person’s wake or memorial service will get the opportunity to discover more about the deceased.
Familiar with the pain of having to recount the story of how her father died over and over again, Ang says this is an increasingly popular, and also meaningful way of paying tribute to and celebrating the life of the deceased.
In her experience, she not only managed to distract people from asking about how her dad passed away, but also discovered many new interesting things about his life from his old friends who shared anecdotes triggered by the old photos.
Some families, she says, take this idea even further — they get her company to interview family members and splice stories from them into a video that is played either at the memorial or funeral service for friends and acquaintances of the deceased.
Customisation is also key for Ang, who makes it a point to find out as much as she can about the person’s life, and capture it creatively at their memorial or funeral.
This is from a memorial service done for a 6-year-old boy at Mandai Crematorium, for instance:
While this was from the memorial service of a young teenage girl, held at the Arts House:
These things can be done with every religion, Ang says, with such stories being incorporated appropriately, after which she will call up two or three people to share their eulogy to the deceased at the service.
She stresses that in all that she’s doing, she isn’t changing traditions — she simply wishes to encourage the idea of making a person’s funeral more meaningful than a casket and a picture of the person.
“If you look at my company, there’s no word of ‘funeral’ or ‘bereavement’ or ‘casket’, because we wanted to be different. I wanted people to remember that, you know, a funeral is not a day in a lifetime, but it should be a lifetime in a day. So by sharing the lifetime in a day, it can make it more wholesome, where everybody comes to a funeral knowing who this person was, and the impact they have made, and the legacy he or she has left behind.”
And she’s still evolving her company’s offerings — next year, she’s working toward unveiling what she calls a decedent spa, where the family of the deceased will get to participate in a body cleansing and pampering ceremony before their loved one gets embalmed, and also introducing a bio-urn — that allows the use of cremated remains to growing a tree — a service that’s chiefly used for pets at the moment.
“I think that what we want to focus on is, how would we like to say goodbye. That’s key. I think if we can change mindsets to talk about this topic, then a lot of times you don’t have to deal with the emotional stress the family members have to go through when they are making decisions… They can be one with their grief, rather than go through all that.”
Top photo courtesy of Angjolie Mei